It has been written, “From the first gasping breath of a newborn child to the last gasping breath of the aged sage, life can be measured as but a succession of breaths.”
Upon hearing that quote for the very first time, my mind drifted to a place and time much different than the physical reality that enveloped me. The notion of breath and time, new and old, demanded that I stop and listen to silence. This high-tech world of cubicles and entanglements cluttering our minds, and these meaningless distractions cause us to lose our sense of self and time.
Perceiving our lives as a “succession of breaths” is an interesting way to measure it, and one that provides valuable lessons. It has been my experience time and again that poignant moments are often expressed in terms of breath. For example, “When she kissed me, I was breathless.” “I got the wind knocked out of me.” “I breathed a sigh of relief.” “I got my second wind.” “I held my breath in anticipation.” “When I first laid eyes on you, it took my breath away.” Surely most of us have experience moments when time, breath, and acute awareness coalesced into a special moment.
It seems somewhat odd to me when pondering the immense value of breathing that we all take it for granted. As humans we can live for weeks, even months, without food. We can also sustain life for a few days without water. However, we all know that without breath, the gift of life ends in mere minutes. Once again, life, time, and breath exist together as inseparable components. And so it occurs to me that tapping into the power of breath, consciously or otherwise is an essential element to living life on purpose.
My martial arts training has provided me with endless lessons in the way of breath. In November 1993, I was at ringside at Ultimate Fighting Championship 1 at McNichols Sports Arena in Denver, Colorado. Awakened to the necessity of adding a ground game (grappling, wrestling, and jiu-jitsu) to my martial arts training, within days I was wrestling with the local Manitou Springs High School wrestling team. I was nearly 40 years old, yet the coach allowed me to train with the team at all their practices. Having never wrestled before, I got my butt kicked. My biggest challenge was cardiovascular endurance; the elevation of Manitou Springs is about 6,000 feet. Training at such elevation, coupled with my absolute ignorance of the rigors of wrestling, I was quickly and permanently humbled. The value of breathing took on a magnitude I had never experienced before. At the time, I already had 20-plus ears of training, along with multiple black belts. I also had run a half-marathon (13.1 miles) and had sparred hundreds of rounds of kumite. Despite all that training and experience, I was rendered helpless as a result of running out of gas (air) when wrestling. At one point I didn’t care if the student wrestlers pinned me, hurt me, or simply dominated me. All I wanted was another breath. There is a simple lesson here: don’t kid yourself into thinking you’re in great shape; work your cardio.
Oftentimes in athletics endeavors, participants confuse being tense with intense. This is manifested in such ways as holding your breath and thus adding muscular tension. Relaxation and body control are by-products of being conscious of your breathing. Taking deep, slow breaths is a beginning step to achieving self-control and peak athletic performance. Also, a common flaw in combat-level grappling is for the athlete to hold his breath while exerting a great amount of energy. Obviously, physical exertion while holding one’s breath leads to potential failure and, of course, pain. In training, awareness of breathing and relaxation are as important as the technique or intent.
Confusing being tense with intense is also a common flaw when performing Filipino Sinawali. Sinawali is generally a two-person stick drill performed at high speed with rattan sticks. Matching angles of attacks, two participants perform structured stick patterns using footwork and high-speed eye-hand coordination. A frequent problem when accelerating the stick action is that people tense up and either hold their breath or resort to shallow breathing, which hinders their stick performance. One way to work the sticks is to focus not on the pattern or stick speed, but rather on taking long, deep breaths. Conscious deep breathing when training sinawali will ultimately raise your level of stick prowess as you become more relaxed and supple.
I highly recommend standing meditation (qi gung) for everyone over 30 years of age. If you are an MMA fighter, I recommend that you begin meditation immediately, regardless of age. Learning to relax and focus on deep, controlled and rhythmic breathing will help calm your nerves before a fight. Meditation has long been proven to lower blood pressure, clear the mind, and slow time. I suggest finding a quiet, serene location for your meditation. Of course, you can meditate anywhere or anytime, but consistency is vital.
I live at the Wind and Rock Training Facility in Chelan, Washington. Regardless of time of year, I often meditate on an outdoor platform where I have a spectacular view of Lake Chelan with snowcapped mountains and isolation. Every time I meditate, I refer back to the quote that life is but a succession of breaths. Being alone, focusing on long, deep inhalations of fresh mountain air allows my mind to be quiet, clam, and in repair.